Thursday, December 30, 2004

My Inspiration: Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation

I don't like to argue. It's somewhat strange that I am in law school, because I really am not a fan of contention. Or am I? I like to think of myself as a nice person, but I also like to think of myself as intellectually honest. Sometimes, the two conflict with each other. I don't read poems to diss them, but at the same time, I don't like to smile and wave at emperors with no clothes. As I've said before, I may be wrong, very wrong, in what I say, but I also think that it's better to get things wrong than to not try at all. I am making these qualifications to ease my way into my critique of the book that is one of the inspirations behind this blog.

The book is Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation (2004), edited by Victoria Chang, foreword by Marilyn Chin. I purchased it on Amazon, and everyday, I eagerly waited for its arrival. I like Victoria Chang's poetry, and I consider Marilyn Chin's poetry to be some of the most innovative work in American poetry today. Moreover, the description of the book on Amazon made it sound marvelous. Respected poets praised the book, and no one to the best of my knowledge (not even now) has said anything bad about it. Plus, it's not everyday that an anthology of Asian-American poetry comes out.

But after my first reading, I absolutely loathed it. More specifically, I hated the editing, which I felt diminished the poetry. I hated the introduction. I disliked the foreword. In general, I hated the anthology. I wrote a couple very long e-mails (about 15 paragraphs total) to friends totally slamming the volume in almost every respect. I hadn't felt such hatred for any book since reading Lord of the Flies in 10th grade. My hatred reached comic heights -- you know, there are more important things in life than getting all worked up over a volume of poetry. (I'll talk about exactly why I hated the anthology in the following post.)

Now I think I know why this volume stirred such deep-seated, genuine emotions. Like most anthologies, this one was an exercise in power through the poems included and excluded, but unlike most anthologies, I felt it as an exercise in power over me. The poets included in, and excluded from, this volume are all under 40, and all of them have Asian-American blood. Like me!, my subconscious exclaimed. Through the poetry, I felt an oddly intimate connection with the poets. I knew this material. Unlike many other poems, often these are ones that I could picture myself writing. I could also often picture myself as the characters in the poems.

In a sense, my comments should be taken as respect for the anthology, because I think that it is an essential work -- one that generations will read and discuss in the future. I also enjoyed quite a few poems on their own. But I hope that they won't read this volume in isolation, without a critical lens, because it does NOT completely represent what I want Asian-American poetry to become. Though the editor does not acknowledge it, the volume does represent what she wants Asian-American poetry to be. I think it's ok and probably inevitable that anthologies represent the wills of their editors, but let's not pretend that it is anything else. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Basically, what I am saying is that there is a profound power struggle over the future of Asian-American poetry here. Power struggles don't have to be divisive, though -- they can be fun and informative, or at least I'm hoping they can be. On to the next post...

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